The Metro is Moscow

Without looking up from his cell phone, the twenty-something silently stood up from his seat, giving it to an old woman. Similarly, the old woman never looked up from the floor, but muttered what I assume was a thank you.  The subway car was entirely silent except for the beating of metal wheels pushing the car forward. A few were on their phones, but the rest stared at the floor or out the car’s dark windows.  The Metro patrons’ patient silence was surprising to a boisterous American visiting Moscow for the first time, but this was—by far—the least surprising part of Moscow’s subway system.

Peer to St. Basil’s Cathedral or the Bolshoi Theater, the Moscow Metro is one of the city’s most beautiful features. Not only is it one of the largest metro systems in the world, but it also contains incredible art and architecture: Kiyevsskaya station features gilded historical mosaics, Arbatskaya station touts stunning white marble, and Novoslobodskaya station hosts stained glass murals.  I’d be happy to show photos from the inside; however, photography in the Metro is illegal.  Assuming that the University doesn’t want to get in a legal battle with some transportation branch of the Russian Federation, I’ll leave the visuals to a quick Google search.

Regardless, these stations are a great way for our Global Seminar to get to know the city, not only because the lines cover every corner of Moscow, but also because directions are in Russian and English (I’ve never been so relieved to see an alphabet I recognize).  There’s one line circling the city, and then the circle is crossed by a dozen or so intersecting, color-coded lines.  After I mentioned how easy the Metro was to navigate, one Moscovite described the subway system as “a work of genius, that can be navigated by an idiot.” I decided not to take the comment personally.

Stations are open from 5:30am to 1:00am; trains arrive every two minutes; each ride (from entering to exiting the entire Metro) typically costs around 30 rubles, or about 50 cents. Comparably safe.  Clean.  It wouldn’t make sense to get around Moscow any another way.

Despite its beauty, however, the Metro’s history is paired with Russian history; behind each fresco or mosaic, sculpture or name, is a story that helps tell Russia’s not-too-perfect brush with the twentieth century. The Metro was built under Stalin as a kind of “underground palace of the people” and symbol of Soviet success.  It opened in 1935, and its art and architecture helped our class discover the USSR’s political culture.

The aforementioned Novoslobodskaya station’s stained glass murals tells a less innocent story than its Instagram-able appearance would suggest. Under Stalin, the communist regime was atheistic and considered religion a threat. Churches were demolished.  Church officials were sent to camps, imprisoned, or otherwise persecuted. Novoslobodskaya station’s design was an attempt to secularize stained glass.

Okhotny Ryad, meaning “Hunter’s Row,” is located near Red Square and has been renamed four times.  Apart from being Okhotny Ryad, the station was also named after politician Lazar Kaganovich (from 1955 to 1957) and Karl Marx (from 1961 to 1990).  In 1957, Kaganovich helped stage an unsuccessful coup; and in 1990, Perestroika made Marx irrelevant. The USSR did not hesitate to erase names that were politically inconvenient.

Each of us researched one station, and these subtleties and hidden narratives were found everywhere. Especially as the class comes to contextualize the recent protests and the Russian government’s handling of the October Revolution’s hundredth anniversary, understanding the USSR’s flexible relationship with its own history has come in handy.

Coming back and forth from class, my rides on the Metro have made me more pensive about how this history has affected the subway’s role in shaping Moscow today.  A few days ago on the circle line, after finishing the last scene of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov (one of our assigned readings), I joined the rest of the subway car in patient silence.  An old woman entered, and I promptly stood up, avoiding eye contact.  She sat down and muttered what I assume was a thank you.  I let the silence speak for me, hearing only the beat of metal wheels push the car forward.